Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Director : Taika Waititi

Writers : Taika Waititi and Barry Crump

Young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is known as a ‘bad egg’ and when he is placed in the foster care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill), it’s only the threat of ‘juvie’ that keeps him from running away from their remote New Zealand farm. Ricky has appropriated American rap culture for his personal brand and he turns up dressed like Turtle from early seasons of Entourage, but while he wants to be ‘Gangsta’, he is shocked at the actual violence required for everyday life on the farm.

Like most antipodean movies that achieve international success, there is a wilderness or outback element that delights the foreign audiences and city slicker locals alike. While we may not be a Crocodile Dundee type ourselves, we like to think we could be if the circumstances were different.  Here, Sam Neil looks the part of grizzled bushman, but as we learn more about him, we understand that a label of ‘ex-wino vagrant’ could sit just as comfortably on his flanno covered shoulders.

Through a series of unfortunate events, Hec and Ricky find themselves targets of a nation-wide manhunt. Ricky is essentially escaping from the child welfare system, but while Hunt for the Wilderpeople hints at serious social issues, it never lingers, and Ricky’s blank faced acceptance of his reality gives us permission not to dwell on it either. It helps that the personification of the Government institutions (Rachel House & Oscar Kightley) are playing it for laughs, leaving us all free to enjoy the chase.

Ricky and Hec are so different in age, background and fashion choices that they have much to clash and converse over and as they travel through the bush they meet some interesting characters. Rhys Darby provides hilarious wide-eyed energy, and the Director himself Taika Waititi, gives a Rowan Atkinson-esque cameo. But it’s the siren song from Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) and her Father that threatens to tempt Ricky from his quest as he is shown a type of life that he didn’t know existed.

Just as we start to suspect that both Hec and Ricky are similarly broken toys that Bella has collected and made a home for, Hec confirms it in a moment immune from subtlety. It’s a self-awareness that’s repeated throughout the script, such as when Hec and Ricky are hiding against a bank in the scrub with their searchers on the road above. The audience may be reminded of a similar scene in Lord of the Rings, but rather than allow the unconscious connection, it’s highlighted as a punch line. But somehow none of it feels heavy-handed, as Waititi brings a magical (or majestical as Hec might say) lightness of touch that makes you smile all the way through.

Ricky’s reactions and timing are brilliant and it’s his performance that provides the sweetness that makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople so successful. This is genuinely a movie for the whole family to enjoy. The chase provides the motivation and momentum, while still leaving time to meander through the New Zealand wilderness and make up a Haiku or two along the way.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople warms your heart like a hot water bottle in your cold bed that you didn’t ask for but appreciate anyway.

 A Must See